Monthly Archives: February 2012

Iwo Jima and war’s waste

A high school friend was killed at Iwo Jima 67 years ago this week. He joined the Marines right out of high school. He couldn’t have been more than 17 and had never been more than 20 miles from home until he hit the beach at Iwo. That pile of rock and ash was an ugly place to live and a dreadful place to die.

In the 1990s, as a reporter at The Selma (Calif.)Enterprise, I wrote an occasional column called PERSPECTIVES. On Dec. 4, 1991, the Enterprise published my memory an Oklahoma boy named L.J.Boyles. I occasionally reprint the transcript, originally with permission of the newspaper.

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War’s Waste by Pat Browning

Watching World War II film footage of the battle for Iwo Jima, I scan the faces, looking for the face of a certain Marine. I don’t see him, but I know he was there.

His name was L.J. He was a soft-spoken boy, with a shy smile and a tendency to blush when someone looked at him straight on. In the mind’s eye, I see a hard-scrabble time and place, and the two of us dragging cotton sacks along the rows of a neighbor’s field.

We picked a little cotton but mostly we talked, making conversation out of very little. We didn’t know much about life or the world. We had no past and our dreams of the future were still unshaped.

Sometimes we forgot about cotton and stood rooted in the rows, talking. The exasperated neighbor finally made us work on opposite sides of the field. Soon after that, either his family moved or mine did. I don’t remember which, but we lost touch.

And then one day I opened a newspaper and saw his picture. The story below, in the terse language of wartime, said that he had been killed atIwo Jima.

Ah, no. Couldn’t be.

There were always pictures of scrubbed-face boys decked out in uniforms of one kind or another. They were always strangers. But this face I knew. This name I knew, and it surely was a mistake. The jump was too far from a cotton field to an island in the Pacific.

The picture burned into my memory, but the meaning escaped me. All I really understood of war was what I saw at the movies. Twenty-three years later, in 1968, I read that the United States had given Iwo Jima back to Japan.

This time I wanted to scream. I thought of firing off a telegram to the president: I knew one of the boys who died for that island. How dare you give it back?

Instead, I lapsed into melancholy rumination on the wastefulness of war. The worst of it was that this time I did understand.

Iwo Jima is eight square miles of rock and ash coughed up by a volcano, an ugly place to live, a dreadful place to die.

But for a brief time in 1945, it was a choice piece of real estate. It had location, location, location. Between Tokyo and the American bomber base on Saipan stretched 1,500 miles of ocean. Iwo Jima was halfway between.

The Japanese used it as a radar warning station and there were three airfields for fighter planes bent on intercepting American bombers headed for Japan. The Americans had to have Iwo Jima come hell or high water.

The Marines went ashore on Feb. 19, and for 26 days they churned across the island, inch by bloody inch, with tanks and flamethrowers. Sometimes the fighting was so close that American warships offshore held their fire for fear of hitting the wrong side.

By the time the island was secured, 6,800 Marines were dead and another 20,000 had been wounded. Of 21,000 Japanese, only 200 were taken alive. Less than five months later, the United States dropped two terrible new bombs on Japan, and the war ended.

By 1968 Americans were fighting inVietnam. Japan was a friend. Iwo Jima was just a cinder in the sea. We gave it back and closed the book.

It could be argued that there is some glory, even a surrealistic beauty, in war. But war’s overriding reality is always waste—waste of life, waste of property, waste of resources—and horror.

The grave marker of another Marine on another island spoke for all of them, my friend as well.

            And when he gets to Heaven,/To Saint Peter he will tell:

            One more marine reporting, sir,/I’ve served my time in hell.

 No one has written more eloquently of those times than Herman Wouk in his massive novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

In a foreword to the latter, Wouk wrote: “The beginning of the end of War lies in Remembrance.”

Books have been written. Memorials have been built. Movies have been made. Pearl Harbor and D-Day, Iwo Jima and Midway will be remembered again and again.

But remembrance, I think, is smaller and more personal. Remembrance is seeing one face in a statistic like 60 million dead.

Fifty years ago, the “winds of war” began to scatter ordinary Americans across the globe. My remembrance is for one of them.

His name is L.J. He is a soft-spoken boy with a shy smile. His dreams of the future are still unshaped, and he is forever young.

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Sometimes you just need a laugh

STUFF TO DIE FOR by Don Bruns had me laughing out loud. Bruns is a new author to me and I sat up all night (I’ve got to quit doing that!) to read this zany mystery novel, the first book in his new series.

The reader is prepared for this humorous-to-hilarious book by the opening paragraph of Chapter 1:

(Quote) Believe me, when James first suggested we start a hauling business, I would have said no way in hell if I’d known we’d be hauling a human body part. And then to be accused of kidnapping and murder? But I’ve only got myself to blame. I’ve known from the start that James Lessor could get into more trouble than any ten people. I just keep forgetting that he’s always dragging me in with him. (End Quote)

The narrator is Skip Moore. He and James Lessor, best friends since third grade, have a yin-yang relationship.

Women: James is a babe magnet – cute, sexy, bold. Skip is 24 going on 16 when it comes to relationships. He muses: “I read one time that if you can get a girl to laugh, you can get her into bed. I’m always afraid that they’ll laugh while we’re in bed.”

Work: James hates his boring job as a cook at the Cap’n Crab but he’s full of schemes for something to make them rich, fat and happy. Skip, who dreams small, drudges through his nondescript job trying to sell security systems in a low-rent neighborhood.

When James unexpectedly inherits $12,000 he buys a Chevy one-ton box truck and tells Skip, “It’s time to break out. Skip Moore and James Lessor, entrepreneurs. Moore and Lessor, or Lessor and Moore. Have truck, will haul.”

Enter Em, Skip’s well-heeled, occasional girl friend. Em has just the job to get them started. She knows Jackie Fuentes, a wealthy woman whose cheating husband has moved in with his mistress. Jackie wants his belongings hauled away. James quotes her an extravagant fee for hauling the stuff to a storage shed, and the entrepreneurs are off and running, in a manner of speaking.

The stuff they’re hauling includes a month’s worth of the husband’s mail. When Skip drops some of it, a large envelope pops open, revealing a severed finger. Worse, the finger wears a class ring from the same high school Skip and James attended. Even worse, the ring is dated the year they graduated. Obviously the finger belonged to somebody they knew, but who?

The finger should be a tip off that the wronged wife isn’t paranoid when she thinks her husband is involved with international terrorists. The budding entrepreneurs decide to deliver the husband’s mail anyway. Bad move. They bumble into a political conspiracy and get a taste of the dark side of real life.

One of the interesting side characters is Angel, a seemingly whacked-out Bahamian who hangs out at the Gas and Grocery and keeps up to date on what Skip and James are doing.

He walks out of the shadows at times when they can really use an “angel.” What’s in it for Angel? Maybe the adrenaline rush. We can only guess.

STUFF TO DIE FOR was published in 2007 and there’s plenty to appeal to your sense of humor. Others in the series are STUFF DREAMS ARE MADE OF (2008); STUFF TO SPY FOR (2009); DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF (2010); and TOO MUCH STUFF (2011).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A look at LITTLE BLUE WHALES

Krill Press embarks on a “Fabulous Four” promotion, offering four Krill e-books per month for 99 cents each. One of the February books is LITTLE BLUE WHALES by Kenneth R. Lewis.

 LITTLE BLUE WHALES is both poetic and violent.   Aside from the human carnage, the author’s brief description of terrified cattle herded through the chute at a packing plant almost turned me into a vegetarian. Even so, I couldn’t put the book down.

No cookie-cutter police procedural, the book is a contemporary version of a classic saga. Like Joseph Wambaugh, Lewis paints a gritty picture of a cop’s life, whether in a big-city precinct or a small-town police department. Wambaugh was an LAPD cop for several years. Lewis is a police chief inOregon. Both write from the inside out.

Opening sentence: “He saw them again that last morning, the two white swans, as he emerged from the towering conifers and massive old oaks in the park and paused at the river’s edge.”

It is Police Chief Kevin Kearnes’ farewell to the beauty of the natural world.  He plans to kill himself after keeping one last appointment with his psychiatrist.

The doctor is late — off fishing –and Kearnes takes a phone call from Thud, the sergeant who has been acting chief while Kearnes recuperates from a traumatic experience, both physical and emotional. Thud’s colorful account of what’s going on in the chief’s absence makes Kearnes laugh for the first time in months.

This densely written novel is set on the Oregon coast, and the first 27 pages are really a prologue. We know something unspeakable happened but we don’t know what it was or why it took place.

 After Thud’s phone call and an explosive confrontation with his psychiatrist, Kearnes settles down to relive and retell the story — “Of the family and life he’d once had in Kansas. Of how he had come to Cutter Point and the woman he had fallen in love with there, but had now lost forever. And of the little blue whales.”

Looking back, as he tells his story to the doctor, Kearnes’ appointment as police chief is rocky from the beginning. His administrative staff views him with dislike or downright hatred, depending on who was passed over for promotion. His instant enemy is Lt. Polk, an aging bully whose “personality would curdle vinegar.” Accustomed to ruling the roost, Polk thwarts Kearnes at every turn.

The new chief’s one friend is Thud Compton, the PD’s training officer and only detective. His speech is laced with profanity but he’s tough as a boot and a stand-up guy. He invites Kearnes to dinner and lays out the bloody guts of Cutter Point politics and bureaucratic fraud.

Kearnes is already deep into depression “in the vast and endless sea of divorced and displaced men … driven by the fear of all he was losing. … But in the end it wasn’t the fear of what he had lost that haunted him … it was the realization of what he had, instead, simply given up on.”

As Kearnes sits at a stoplight, pondering all that, the dispatcher sends out a “dead body” alarm. Every police, sheriff and rescue unit in the county responds, creating a massive traffic jam. The dead body turns out to be the rotting carcass of a beached whale.

The whale belongs to a protected species but before U.S. Fish & Wildlife can be notified, a nut group called The Patriots decides to clear the beach by blowing up the whale. They plant 90 bars of military “C-4” plastic explosive in the whale’s carcass.

The blast not only clears the beach, it digs a hole in the beach the size of an Olympic swimming pool, blows out store front windows in the town plaza, sets off the Tsunami Early Warning Alert System, and sends huge chunks of whale smashing into gridlocked cars.

One motorist with a destroyed windshield and airbag bruises is a beautiful woman named Britt. Like Kearnes, she has given up on life. Kearnes takes her to the hospital. She resists his attempts to strike up a friendship.

Also stalled in traffic is Uriah Beek, a toy salesman with his second victim — a 10-year-old boy– bound, gagged and jammed between the two front seats. Soon enough, the police will begin finding bodies and go looking for the killer, who always seems to be one step ahead of them. 

Simply put, Beek is a howling maniac, thanks to a father who regularly beat him senseless when he was growing up. Beek lures little boys with a pair of binoculars and a tin toy in the shape of a little blue whale.

A theme emerges: Boys preyed upon by male authority figures grow up half-dead inside. In Kearnes’ case the perpetrator was a stranger. In Beek’s case, it was his father. Cop/toy salesman, hero/villain, both going through life as damaged goods. Perhaps it’s fated that their paths should cross. Kearnes faces his demons and survives.

The exploding whale scene is based on a true incident. You can watch the real thing on You Tube at http://tinyurl.com/6wtm6gd.

LITTLE BLUE WHALES was published in 2009. At the Oregon South Coast Writer’s Conference in 2003, the work-in-progress won the William H. Doody Scholarship Award for Fiction. In 2010, the published book won First Grand Prize for Fiction at the annual convention of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Lewis’s second book, THE SPARROWS’S BLADE, was published in 2011.

His third, THE HELICAL VANE, is due out this fall.

Kenneth R. Lewis’s web site is at www.kennethrlewis.com.